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Process Begins To Consider Lethal Removal of Sea Lions

February 2, 2007 Columbia Basin Bulletin

The federal government this week triggered a process that could ultimately provide the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington authority to lethally remove California sea lions that prey each spring on threatened and endangered salmon in the lower Columbia River.

The Commerce Department's NOAA Fisheries Service (formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) announced Tuesday that it had determined the predation situation warranted a closer look through the convening of a Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force.

Once formed that panel would evaluate whether or not the lethal removal of particular marine mammals by the states is justified.

The states on Dec. 5 applied to the Commerce Secretary for authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to lethally remove individual sea lions -- as many as 80 in the first year of implementation -- that are proven to have a "significant negative impact" on salmon stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision announced in Tuesday's Federal Register calls for public comment on the states' application and for other information on sea lion predation below Bonneville Dam, and for nominations for potential members of the task force.

Comments and nominations will be accepted through April 2. Comments on the application should be addressed to: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, NMFS,
1201 NE Lloyd Blvd., Suite 1100, Portland, OR 97232.

Comment may also be submitted by email to SeaLion.Predation@noaa.gov or by fax to 301-427-2527.

For more information on the issue, including the Federal Register announcement accepting the states' request, see: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Seals-and-Sea-Lions/States-MMPA-Request.cfm

The task force is required to be comprised of the following: (1) NMFS/NOAA staff, (2) scientists who are knowledgeable about the pinniped interaction, (3) representatives of affected conservation and fishing community organizations, (4) treaty Indian tribes, (5) the states, and (6) such other organizations as NMFS deems appropriate.

Approval or denial of the application by the service would be based in large part on the task force's recommendations. NMFS estimates completing the entire process, including satisfying National Environmental Protection Act requirements, could take from two to four years.

"There are starts and stops in the process," said Brent Norberg, marine mammal coordinator for NMFS' Northwest region.

"The decision to go forward has been made," he said. That starts a 60-day public comment and nomination period. Then the MMPA-mandated clock stops while the agency decides who will be on the task force and its members decides when and there they will convene.

"The clock won't start until the task force convenes," Norberg said. The task force will review the application, other background information and public comments. Within 60 days after its establishment, the task force recommends to NOAA Fisheries Service whether to approve or deny the application. The task force is required to submit with its recommendation:

-- a description of the specific pinniped individual or individuals; -- the proposed location; -- time; -- method of such taking; -- criteria for evaluating the success of the action; -- the duration of the intentional taking authority, and -- a suggestion of non-lethal alternatives, if available and practicable, including a recommended course of action.

Within 30 days of receiving the task force recommendations, NOAA Fisheries Service must approve or deny the application and, if approved, immediately take steps to implement the intentional lethal taking. Intentional lethal taking is to be performed by federal or state agencies, or qualified individuals under contract to such agencies.

"The process is tortuous," said NOAA's Brian Gorman. The only implementation of the MMPA's Section 120 occurred in Washington, where three sea lions feeding on steelhead at Seattle's Ballard Locks were captured and transported to Florida's Sea World.

Section 120 was amended in 1994 by Congress specifically to address the Ballard situation. A task forced was formed there in January 1995. Its members ranged from academics to state, federal and tribal scientists to representatives of fish and conservations such as Greenpeace and the Humane Society. It produced a removal recommendation that was conditioned on the state first trying non-lethal means of preventing predation on the imperiled steelhead stock.

Those recommendations included capturing and holding the pinnipeds during the steelhead migration season. The identified ringleaders, however, returned to the locks the following year and resumed feasting on steelhead.

"We have no way of predicting what the task force will say" regarding the Columbia River application, Norberg said.

The Ballard application identified five particularly voracious and persistent pinnipeds for removal. The Columbia River application focuses on a geographical area where the states' say nine listed salmon and steelhead stocks have become increasingly vulnerable to sea lions. The states ask that lethal removal be allowed from Bonneville Dam down to navigation market 85, about six miles down stream, annually from Jan. 1 to June 30. Any lethal removal would be preceded by non-lethal deterrence activities such as harassment and an evaluation of those activities' success.

"All California sea lions above Navigation Marker 85 forage for salmonids and as such are 'identifiable' (i.e., in the sense that it is not possible to confuse them with individuals that don't eat salmonids), and therefore candidates for lethal removal," the application says.

"In addition to animals located above Marker 85, all individually marked California sea lions that have been documented feeding on salmonids at Bonneville Dam would be candidates for removal without restriction to time or location in the river," the application says.

The application says the states would limit annual removals to 1 percent of the Potential Biological Removal level for California sea lions. The PBR is level of human-caused mortality that NOAA believes can be incurred annually without affecting the health of the overall population. The population is now estimated to number at least 237,000 animals; the PBR is 8,333.

The species shows varied personalities, some are leaders, some are followers, some are more irascible and resistant to harassment. The states, and Norberg, say that the removal of the leaders during the first few years will eliminate most of the problem. The most persistent of the sea lions that have been coming upriver year after year bring tagalongs that might not otherwise have made the trip 145 river miles inland.

"… the number proposed to be removed in subsequent years is anticipated to be lower and would likely approach zero within several years," according to the application.

Previous decades witnessed few sea lion incursions. But with the turn of the turn of the century, and a coincident improvement in the size of Columbia and Snake river salmon and steelhead runs, more and more sea lion sightings at Bonneville have been documented. The sea lions, almost entirely male, range up the coast in search of food before returning to breeding grounds off the Southern California coast in the summer.

NOAA, in its 2000 biological opinion on Columbia/Snake hydrosystem operations, called for an evaluation of sea lion predation at the dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began studies in 2001to evaluate how many pinnipeds were present and how many salmon they consumed.

The number of sea lions grew from six animals that first year, topping off at 111 and 105 in 2003 and 2004 and numbering 85 in each of the past two years. And they've been coming earlier and staying longer each year. Sea lions were present at the dam for 59 days in 2001 and for 117 days in 2006.

The Corps study indicates that the sea lions' predation on salmon has also increased, from 0.35 percent of the total upriver spring chinook run in 2001 (1,010 salmonids) to 3.4 percent or 2,920 salmon in 2005. Last year the lions consumed an estimated 2.8 percent of the upriver run in the area immediately below the dam.

"Pinniped predation estimates at the dam therefore represent a minimum lower bound on total river-wide predation," according to the application. "Preliminary bioenergetic modeling, for example, suggests that California sea lions could be consuming 13,000 salmon each spring (based on 100 sea lions consuming a 100 percent diet of 8 kg salmon for 100 days)."

The states note that considerable effort and money has been directed for the past few decades to restore Columbia River salmon and steelhead populations. Harvest reductions, hydroelectric system mitigation, watershed and subbasin planning, and hatchery reform are among the tools being employed. The application stresses that reducing sea lion predation is yet another, necessary tool.

"No action, or continued use of non-lethal methods only, will likely result in an expansion of the problem by allowing increasing numbers of sea lions to become recruited into the pool of nuisance animals. The expected benefit of permanent removal of the animals in question will be to reduce a recent, unnatural, and significant source of mortality that has jeopardized the States' ongoing efforts to recover ESA-listed salmonids in the Columbia River Basin," the application says.

Hazing methods were tried in 2005 from the dam itself and expanded in 2006 to use acoustic deterrents and boat-based efforts using seal bombs, cracker shells, rubber buckshot, and vessel chase in an attempt to deter pinnipeds from the area immediately below the dam to approximately seven river miles downriver. The effort showed little success.

"Downriver movements by hazed animals appeared to be temporary as there was no long-term decrease in the number of pinnipeds or predation due to hazing," the application says. State, federal and tribal biologists participated.

In 2007, the Corps and states plan to step up their non-lethal deterrence efforts (by increasing the number of days of deterrence operations from four to seven per week), as resources allow.

Meanwhile, Washington congressmen Doc Hastings and Brian Baird are working to reintroduce legislation that would provide a more immediate solution to what they see as a serious predation problem.

Late last fall U.S. Reps. Hastings and Baird, a Republican and Democrat respectively, introduced legislation to amend the MPA to give Oregon and Washington and four treaty tribes the authority to kill particularly troublesome sea lions. The legislation would have given the Commerce Secretary 90 days to decide if non-lethal deterrence was adequate. If not, states would have been able to seek and receive lethal removal permits within 30 days.

But the timing was bad with the congressional session soon closing. Such a bill would now have to be reintroduced, and will be, said Martin Doern of Hastings' staff. The co-sponsors' staffs are now discussing the details, "based on feedback we got last year," Doern said this week. He said a new bill would be introduced, likely within the next few weeks.

"Changing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, even a very small change, a specific change, is a controversial issue," Doern said of the need for a painstaking crafting of the bill language.

The goal, however, remains the same -- to give the states and tribes more flexibility to manage sea lion predation to reduce impacts on salmon.

"The issue is still there," Doern said.

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